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5 Fast Facts About Esther Afua Ocloo

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Today, Google is celebrating what would have been the 98th birthday of Esther Afua Ocloo with a Google Doodle. Just who was this groundbreaking businesswoman who was known to so many as “Auntie Ocloo”? Read on for five fast facts about her life and legacy.

1. SHE STARTED HER FIRST BUSINESS WITH LESS THAN A DOLLAR.

Thanks to a scholarship and the generosity of an aunt, Esther Afua Ocloo was able to attend Achimota School, one of Ghana’s most prestigious boarding schools. But unlike so many of her classmates, Ocloo—who was born Esther Afua Nkulenu—did not come from a wealthy family. (Her father was a blacksmith and her mother was a potter and farmer.) Still, Ocloo was determined to succeed in life, and on her own terms.

After graduating from high school, her aunt gifted her with 10 shillings (less than a dollar), which she used to purchase sugar, oranges, and a dozen jars in order to make some marmalade that she could sell. “I was determined to turn that 10 shillings into two pounds at least,” Ocloo recalled in an interview years later. "With six shillings I bought the ingredients to make marmalade, and went to the street side to sell the jars of marmalade. Within an hour I had sold all my jars and turned six shillings into 12! I was so excited I treated myself to a delicious lunch.”

2. SHE WAS ENCOURAGED BY HER FORMER TEACHERS.

Though she attended school with the children of some of Ghana’s most prominent families, Ocloo didn’t concern herself with the look of things. “Ghana was taking on more of the values of our colonizer, Britain,” she said of the atmosphere in Ghana in the early 1940s. “The attitude to people doing blue-collar work was terrible. In my days, people who had received a secondary education were expected to seek jobs in offices, managerial positions. I was ridiculed by all my classmates, who saw me hawking marmalade on the street like an uneducated street vendor. I went to a school with prestige, [where] the Ghanaians trying to mimic our colonizers looked down on the old fashioned traditions. But 80 percent of our teachers were European, and they were excited when they heard what I was doing.”

They were so excited that Ocloo’s alma mater became her first big client. “They invited me to supply the school with my marmalade two times a week,” she said. “They were so impressed with how successful my business was, they began reserving a percentage of my profits to save money for me to go to England for further training.” Between that and the contract she eventually secured with the military, Ocloo was able to take out a bank loan and make her business—known as Nkulenu Industries—official. The company is still doing business today, making jams and other food items, which are exported around the world.

3. SHE WAS THE FIRST BLACK INDIVIDUAL TO RECEIVE A COOKING DIPLOMA FROM THE GOOD HOUSEKEEPING INSTITUTE.

In addition to helping her get her first business off the ground, the Achimota School also helped Ocloo further her education. Between 1949 and 1951, the school sponsored her trip to England, where she received post-graduate training. In 1951, she received a cooking diploma from the Good Housekeeping Institute in London; she was the first black individual to achieve the honor. She also took classes in food science, technology, preservation, nutrition, and agriculture at Bristol University.

4. SHE DEDICATED HER LIFE TO HELPING OTHER WOMEN SUCCEED.

When Ocloo returned to Ghana, she wasn’t about to keep all of that education to herself. Instead, she dedicated much of her time and life to empowering other women to become self-sufficient, establishing a farm-based program to help teach women about business, food production, agriculture, and craft-making.

''I have taught them to cost the things they sell and determine their profits,'' Ocloo said. ''You know what we found? We found that a woman selling rice and stew on the side of the street is making more money than most women in office jobs—but they are not taken seriously."

In a separate interview, Ocloo spoke about where her desire to empower women came from. “I came from an underprivileged family,” she told The Odyssey. “I wanted to see to it that women were equipped to help their children so they don't suffer the same hardships. Women can contribute effectively—socially, economically, and culturally. Women are the economic backbone of West Africa. They produce over 80 percent of our food—from growing, to producing, to distributing, yet their jobs are not regarded in a high esteem.”

Over the course of her life, Ocloo helped to found eight nonprofit organizations, including the Sustainable End of Hunger Foundation and Women's World Banking, a microlending organization that gives small loans to female business owners who are unable to secure traditional bank loans. The organization operates in more than two dozen countries.

5. SHE BECAME THE FIRST WOMAN TO RECEIVE THE AFRICA PRIZE FOR LEADERSHIP.

In 1990, Ocloo achieved yet another first when she became the first woman to receive the Africa Prize for Leadership, an award given by The Hunger Project to “outstanding leaders from every level and every sector of society. Individually, their accomplishments have improved the lives of tens of millions of people. Together, they represent a new possibility.” True to form, Ocloo reinvested much of her prize money in the women she fought so hard to empower. Following her passing in 2002, The New York Times reported that when Ocloo’s children once complained to her about how all that training was only helping her competitors, Ocloo responded that, “I don't listen. My main goal is to help my fellow women. If they make better marmalade than me, I deserve the competition.”

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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